Connecticut has made major progress in reforming its criminal justice system. In many ways, it is a leader of justice reform in our country. However, too often individuals in Connecticut who have criminal records are released from the system only to find themselves locked out of job opportunities. Senate Bill 691 aims to change that by automatically erasing criminal records after an individual has remained crime-free for a certain number of years.
While SB 691 is primarily a criminal justice bill, if passed, it will have effects that ripple out far beyond the justice system. In fact, given that as many as one out of every three Americans — or around 1.2 million people in Connecticut — have criminal records, it has the potential to result in major economic benefits for the state and its residents.
A criminal record severely hinders a person’s ability to find productive work. The rate of unemployment among the formerly incarcerated is a staggering 27 percent — higher than the unemployment rate during the Great Depression. Even when these records are for minor crimes and many years have passed since they were committed, their stigmatizing effect continues. Most individuals who have a record do wish to work and are actively looking for a job. Yet when those with a record do obtain employment, they are often underemployed in low-wage, insecure jobs.
With so many Connecticut residents burdened by criminal records, our economy suffers. The Center for Economic and Policy Research has estimated that in terms of cost to the economy as a whole, the United States loses about $78 billion to $87 billion in gross domestic product every year, with Connecticut’s portion being between $1 billion and $1.2 billion. That is a huge loss of economic activity.
If there is one policy solution we can pass to help individuals find jobs and improve our economy, it is to automatically expunge their criminal records after a certain period has elapsed. Once a person has paid their debt to society and has stayed crime-free for several years, he or she should have a fighting chance at finding employment.
The bill is particularly powerful because it would make expungement automatic. Many states, including Connecticut, have expungement statutes on the books, but these require individuals to petition a court or board to obtain relief. This process is cumbersome and expensive to navigate, and often requires a lawyer. This is why a recent study found that so few individuals have their records expunged, even when they are eligible. Yet once an individual received an expungement, his or her income rises by 20 percent. A higher income means an improved ability to participate in the local economy, which will help revitalize Connecticut.
Expungement not only holds the promise of improving Connecticut’s economy, it also enhances public safety. The same study found that “contrary to the fears of critics, people with expunged records break the law again at very low rates.” This makes intuitive sense: Because those with cleared records are better able to find employment, they are more likely to be able to make ends meet, which in turn reduces their tendency to commit new crimes. Additionally, those who have made it through the waiting period for expungement without committing new crimes have already demonstrated their desire to live a better life.
The Clean Slate Initiative is a crucial gateway to employment for people who made mistakes in the past and have since changed their ways. Yes, we want people to pick themselves up by their bootstraps. But let us not forget Martin Luther King Jr.’s reminder that it is heartless “to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
We are a country built on redemption, and SB 691 would help to redeem thousands of individuals in Connecticut. Isn’t it time we gave those who have already paid their debt to society a real chance to rebuild their lives?